Archive for the 'Persistent Bioaccumulative Toxins (PBTs)' Category

Burning Need: The Search for Less-toxic Flame Retardants

Thursday, September 18th, 2014 by

DfE labelFlame retardants have been in the news again recently, as four health systems announced they would follow Kaiser Permanante’s lead by halting future purchases of furniture treated with flame retardants. As participants in the Healthier Hospitals Initiative (HHI), these health systems will specify with suppliers that upholstered furniture should not contain flame retardants where code permits. Commonly used flame retardants, particularly halogenated ones, have been found to be persistent and bioaccumulative in the environment, and have been linked to a variety of health problems, including endocrine disruption, cancer, neurotoxicity, and adverse developmental issues among others. These compounds serve as great illustration of the need for source reduction and safer alternatives considerations during P2 Week.

One such class of compounds, polybrominated diphenyl ethers or PBDEs, were commonly used in electronics, among other things. Back in 2004, a study conducted by the Electronics Take Back Coalition (then called the Computer Take-Back Campaign) and Clean Production Action found PBDEs in dust swiped from computers in university labs, legislative offices, and a children’s museum; many similar studies would further illustrate the ubiquity of these compounds in our everyday environments. That same year, penta- and octaBDEs were phased out of manufacture and import in the US. By 2009, the US producers of decaPBDE had reached an agreement with EPA to phase it out from manufacture, import and sale by 2013. DecaPBDE has been used in television casings, cell phones, and other electronics. EPA’s Design for Environment (DfE) program has conducted a Flame Retardant Alternatives for DecaBDE Partnership, which released a final report in January of this year. Three other DfE partnership programs have focused on flame retardants, underscoring the recognition by the government and industry that many of these substances require replacement with safer compounds (see the DfE partnerships related to flame retardant alternatives for HBCD, those used in circuit boards, and those used in furniture).

Despite efforts to phase out and replace specific flame retardants linked to negative impacts, these compounds continue to be a problem in general. For example, some of the phased out PBDEs may still be in your home or office, if you have older electronic devices, or furniture containing treated foam. People don’t replace items like couches all that often, and those of us attuned to sustainability try to extend the useful life of the products we own as long as possible. This situation is an example of how you really can’t define any action as being entirely “green”–it’s good to keep items longer, but the tradeoff could be continued exposure to toxins. PBDEs and other flame retardants can also present occupational exposure risks in electronics recycling facilities where the compounds can become airborne during dismantling processes. Such facilities will continue to deal with older products that contain phased out compounds into the future; you’ve probably heard about the volumes of old CRT TVs and monitors electronics recyclers deal with, and the issues surrounding the lead within them. Consider that all those old monitors probably have cases with phased-out toxic flame retardants in them as well. And if established procedures are not always successful in preventing lead exposures in recycling operations, as has recently been illustrated, then it’s also possible existing controls may not be effectively protecting workers from flame retardants. I won’t even get into the whole issue of informal recycling of electronics, and the releases of flame retardants into the environment that surely results from such operations.

To make matters worse, some of the early-adopted alternatives have already been shown to be problematic themselves. Organophosphates, for example, have been used for decades as flame retardants in consumer goods, and their use increased as a replacement for the brominated flame retardants which were being phased out. But recent studies have detected higher than expected levels of organophosphates in outdoor air, including sites around the Great Lakes, suggesting that this class of compounds, which also is associated with its own list of human health concerns, could be as persistent, toxic, and as easily transported as the compounds it replaced. One particular organophosphate, known as “tris” or “chlorinated tris” was turned to as alternative to PBDEs, and has received a lot of recent attention as a study conducted by the Environmental Working Group and Duke University scientists was released showing blood levels of tris in toddlers that were on average five times higher than that in their mothers. Since toddlers are more sensitive than adults to chemicals that can effect hormones and metabolism, this finding is particularly disturbing. It’s likely that this result is due to the fact that these compounds so readily leach out of products, like furniture, and get into dust, just as PBDEs were shown to. Since toddlers tend to play on the floor and pop objects into their mouths, they’re at increased risk of exposure to toxin-laden dust than adults. It’s interesting to note that tris was eliminated from use in children’s pajamas in 1977 when it was found to be mutagenic, but it has continued to be used in other products, particularly in the types of foams found within furniture.

The multitude of issues related to these compounds have lead others, besides the health care systems mentioned earlier, to advocate for limiting exposure to flame retardants period, and re-examining their widespread use. The Green Science Policy Institute, for example, argues that flame retardants are used, particularly in electronics, in instances beyond those in which evidence supports the need for external resistance to candle flame ignition. (See The Case against Candle Resistant TVs published earlier this year, and The Case against Candle Resistant Electronics from 2008). Among other issues, they point out that widespread flame retardant chemical use may pose a clear occupational exposure threat to firefighters, since once a fire does start, the by-products released from the burning of materials containing them may cause greater risk to firefighter health than smoke not containing such by-products. They are not the only entity to suggest this (see this article in the Huffington Post, for example).

Incidentally, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) were once used as flame retardants, among other things; their production was banned in the US in 1979 due to their toxicity and persistence in the environment. Despite this, we are still dealing with exposure to PCBs and how to properly dispose of materials containing PCBs. Just yesterday (9/17), a workshop addressing PCBs and Their Impact on Illinois was held at the University of Illinois at Chicago and simultaneously broadcast at the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC), host agency for both GLRPPR and the Sustainable Electronics Initiative. Part of the impetus for the workshop was a recent political controversy over whether to allow a landfill situated over a large aquifer to be permitted to accept materials containing PCBs. Options for safe disposal of PCB contaminated materials remain limited and expensive. Like PBDEs, PCBs fell into the category of halogenated flame retardants; in their case the halogen involved was chlorine rather than bromine.

And like PCBs, other types of flame retardants are likely to persist not only in the environment, but on our list of headaches to deal with in terms of policy and disposal/clean up, well beyond the time at which any specific one of them may be banned or phased out. They represent a current, easy-to-relate-to example of why pollution prevention techniques, such as the employment of green chemistry, green engineering, and design for environment during the product design and development phase are so essential to human and environmental well being.

December 2008 Site of the Month: Consumer Reports Greener Choices

Monday, December 1st, 2008 by

It’s holiday time again, which means you’re probably going to buy at least one gift for someone, as well as items for celebrations and holiday meals. You may wish to consult Consumer Reports Greener Choices web site, which provides information to help choose more environmentally friendly products. Articles and “green ratings” are available for the following product categories: Appliances, Cars, Electronics, Food & Beverages, and Home & Garden.  Within these sections, you’ll find links to articles, information on conservation of resources (such as energy, water, fuel, etc.), resources for shopping greener, and information on recycling and disposal. The “Hot Topics & Solutions” section of the site includes the Eco-labels Center (which helps you interpret what product labels really mean), the Electronics Recycling Center, the Global Warming Solutions Center, and sections on Energy, Water, and Waste.

The “Toolkit” section includes calculators to help save energy, water, and money, as well as a Toxics Search tool to find out whether there’s a potential for exposure while using a particular product, and how that can affect your health. The “Community” section of the site includes links to Consumers Union campaigns, forums and resources for further information, as well as blogs on cars, food safety, green homes, and safety.

IL Electronic Products Recycling and Reuse Act

Thursday, September 25th, 2008 by

On September 17, 2008, Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich announced legislation requiring electronics manufacturers to collect and recycle or reuse electronics products. At no charge to consumers, the law authorizes the use of a combination of incentives and mandates to reduce the ever-increasing amount of electronic waste – televisions, printers, computer monitors, computers, laptops, printers, fax machines and MP3 players – and their toxic substances, such as lead, cadmium, copper, flame retardants, and phosphorus, from being disposed in Illinois landfills.  It also gives manufacturers flexibility in the strategies they use to meet their goals, such as partnering with retailers and local governments to sponsor collections.  Manufacturers, recyclers, refurbishers and collectors must also register annually with the Illinois EPA. Effective January 1, 2012, landfills would be prohibited from knowingly accepting any of the covered electronic devices for disposal. SB 2313 is effective immediately.

For further information on SB 2313, as well as a link to the resulting Public Act (095-0959; the Electronic Products Recycling and Reuse Act), see the Illinois General Assembly web site.

WI: Focus on Energy Offers Change-a-Light Incentive and CFL Fact Sheet

Friday, October 5th, 2007 by

While we’re on the subject of energy efficient light bulbs, note that Focus on Energy,Focus on Energy Logo Wisconsin’s energy efficiency and renewable energy initiative, is currently offering instant cash-back rewards on select Energy Star qualified compact fluorescent (CFL) light bulbs. The promotion began on October 1, and while supplies last, Wisconsin residents can buy the CFLs for as little as $0.99. For more information on participating retailers, contact Focus on Energy at 800-762-7077 or see the campaign web page. The campaign site also includes a nice little calculator to estimate your yearly savings based upon the number of standard bulbs you replace with CFLs.

If you’re concerned about mercury content in CFLs, Focus on Energy also has a helpful publication entitled “The Facts About Mercury in CFLs” that could convince you the benefits of CFL use outweigh the risks. This fact sheet includes a chart that compares the mercury content of CFLs to that of other common household products, such as float switches in sump pumps and watch batteries. Proper disposal and cleanup of broken CFLs are also covered.

New York State DEC to host REACH workshop

Tuesday, September 11th, 2007 by

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) recently announced that it will host a workshop on the European Union’s Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and Restriction of Chemical Substances (REACH). REACH is a recently adopted overhaul of the chemicals management system in the EU. REACH has important implications for United States firms exporting to EU member states and the rules became effective on June 1, 2007. The training session will take place on September 26, 2007 at DEC headquarters in Albany, NY.

An earlier post described a similar workshop that will be held in Lansing, MI on September 27.

For more upcoming events, check the GLRPPR online calendar and Sector Resources.

Draft Great Lakes Mercury in Products Phase-Down Strategy Open for Public Comments

Wednesday, August 29th, 2007 by

The Great Lakes Regional Collaboration announces a sixty day public comment period for a Draft Great Lakes Mercury in Products Phase-Down Strategy. In fulfillment of a Collaboration Strategy recommendation, in April 2006, State, Tribal, and City staff commenced development of a basin-wide Strategy for the phase-down of mercury in products and waste.

A draft Strategy is now available for public comment at http://glrc.us/initiatives/toxics/drafthgphasedownstrategy.html, through October 27, 2007. We invite comments on the Strategy itself and on how best to move forward with implementation, as well as commitments from stakeholders to implement components of the Strategy.

A copy of the draft document was first distributed to government agency experts for technical review, then revised and distributed to a limited group of industry and environmental group stakeholders. A summary of comments that were received and incorporated can also be found at the above web link.

Please send comments electronically to Debra Jacobson at djacobso@wmrc.uiuc.edu. When sending comments by e-mail be sure to put the words “Great Lakes Mercury Strategy Comments” in the subject line.

If you have questions please contact Debra Jacobson at djacobso@wmrc.uiuc.edu or (630) 472 – 5019 (Phone).

Thanks to Deb Jacobson for submitting this information.

Lowell Center, MI DEQ Offer REACH Training

Friday, July 6th, 2007 by

The Chemicals Policy Initiative of the Lowell Center for Sustainable Production at the University of Massachusetts Lowell and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) are offering a training on the REACH (Registration, Evaluation, and Authorization of Chemicals) legislation in September 2007. The training, entitled Turning REACH into an Opportunity: A Training on Implementing The European Union’s New REACH Legislation, will be held September 27 at the Lansing Community College West Campus in Lansing, MI. The following press release from the DEQ describes the training:

“REACH— Registration, Evaluation, and Authorization of Chemicals— is the recently adopted overhaul of the chemicals management system in the European Union (EU). Entered into force June 1, 2007, REACH has important implications for US firms exporting to European Member States.

Attend this one-day training to learn from one of the few REACH authors and other experts about what you need to know to comply with REACH, stay competitive, and advance more sustainable chemicals management in your firm.

Why Should I Attend?
The new REACH system puts much more responsibility on companies to collect data on most chemicals on the market, assess the risk of these chemicals, and define safe use down the supply chain. It also requires companies to justify continued use of chemicals of very high concern. Any company exporting chemicals or chemical mixtures into the EU; competes in Europe, the US or elsewhere with products meeting European standards; or exports finished products to Europe has been effected by REACH.

This training session will help US companies prepare for REACH and turn it from a challenge into an opportunity. European companies have been preparing for the challenges and opportunities of REACH for several years— US companies must be prepared to remain competitive. Attendees will receive a database of tools and resources to help them make informed decisions about chemicals alternatives.

Complete conference agenda and registration information will be available on the Web by late July at www.chemicalspolicy.org. Registration fee is $100 and includes continental breakfast, lunch, and conference materials. Pre-registration and pre-payment is required. Registration and Information Contact: Yve Torrie, Lowell Center for Sustainable Production, 978-934-3121.”

Note that this event has been posted to the GLRPPR calendar, and an electronic version of the registration brochure will be linked to that event record when it becomes available. As part of Michigan DEQ’s Green Meetings Initiative, all marketing of this training will be done electronically. For more information on DEQ trainings, see the Trainings and Workshops section of the DEQ web site.

Thanks to Jennifer Acevedo of Michigan DEQ for providing this information.

NWF Documents on EPP, Mercury Thermostat Recycling, & Mercury Switches in Vehicles

Friday, March 16th, 2007 by

Thanks to Michael Murray, Ph.D., National Wildlife Federation (NWF) Staff Scientist for the Great Lakes Natural Resource Center, for providing three new NWF documents for access on the GLRPPR web site:

Environmentally Preferable Purchasing in the Great Lakes Region: A Survey of State, Municipal and Institutional Programs assesses EPP programs in the eight Great Lakes states, eight municipalities and three universities, with an emphasis on policies addressing PBT chemicals. Researched and written by Cameron S. Lory and Amy E. Scott-Runnels of INFORM, Inc., and Michael W. Murray, Ph.D. of the National Wildlife Federation (NWF).

Recycling Mercury Thermostats in Ohio outlines the problem of mercury in the environment, and provides information on mercury in thermostats and alternatives and recycling mercury containing thermostats in Ohio. It also includes a comparison of collection of mercury containing thermostats via the Thermostat Recycling Corporation voluntary program for both the U.S. as a whole and Ohio.

Putting the Brakes on Quicksilver: Removing Mercury From Vehicles in Ohio addresses the removal of mercury switches from automobiles in Ohio. This report was written by Michael W. Murray, Ph.D. with research assistance by Knoll Larkin and Liz Szaluta of the University of Michigan.